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Profile: Brian A. Benczkowski
Brian A. Benczkowski was a participant or observer in the following events:
Ron Wyden. [Source: Public domain / US Congress]Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) writes to the Justice Department’s acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), Steven Bradbury, asking for clarification of the Bush administration’s stance on the Geneva Conventions as they apply to the interrogation of detainees. Wyden notes that President Bush has recently affirmed that the US would observe the conventions’ standards on humane treatment of all prisoners, and asks precisely how the OLC defines the concept of “humane treatment.” Wyden wants to know what circumstances definitions of that term might vary under, and asks the same questions of the term “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” The principal deputy assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski, will answer Wyden’s letter on September 27, 2007 (see September 27, 2007). [US Senate, 8/8/2007 ]
The Justice Department’s Brian Benczkowski answers Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)‘s request for clarification of the terms “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” as it applies to suspected terrorists in US custody. Benczkowski writes that the government uses the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) and a recent executive order, Order #13440 (authorizing the continued use of harsh interrogation methods—see July 20, 2007) to determine how the US will comply with the Geneva Conventions. Benczkowski writes that Order 13440 and the Army Field Manual, among other guidelines, ensure that any interrogations carried out by US personnel comply with Geneva.
Geneva Does Not Clearly Define 'Humane Treatment' - He goes on to note that the term “humane treatment” is not directly defined by Geneva, but “rather provides content by enumerating the specific prohibitions that would contravene that standard.” Common Article 3, the statute in the Conventions that specifically addresses the treatment of prisoners, expressly prohibits “violence” including “murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” It also prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity,” including “humiliating and degrading treatment.” Benczkowski writes that there is no accepted international standard as to what is defined as “humane treatment” and what is not, outside of the basic provisions of food, water, clothing, shelter, and protection from extremes of temperature. Given this standard, he writes, the Bush administration does ensure that “all detainees within the CIA program shall be treated humanely.”
Defined by Circumstances - He goes on to note that Geneva seems to grant some leeway for interpretation as to what complies with its standards, particularly in the area of “outrages upon personal dignity.” Citing a previous international tribunal, he writes, “To rise to the level of an outrage, the conduct must be ‘animated by contempt for the human dignity of another person’ and it must be so deplorable that the reasonable observer would recognize it as something that must be universally condemned.” None of the methods used by US interrogators contravenes any of these standards as the Justice Department interprets them, Benczkowski concludes. As for the question of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” or as he abbreviates it, “CIDT,” Benczkowski writes that such treatment is prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. However, circumstances determine what is and is not CIDT, he writes; even “in evaluating whether a homicide violates Common Article 3, it would be necessary to consider the circumstances surrounding the act.” The CIA interrogation program fully complies with Common Article 3, various statutes and Supreme Court decisions, and the Bill of Rights, Benczkowski asserts. [US Department of Justice, 9/27/2007 ]
Justice Department attorney Brian Benczkowski replies to a follow-up letter from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is challenging the department’s claims that the CIA detainee interrogation program is fully compliant with US and international law (see December 20, 2007). Much of Benczkowski’s letter is a reiteration of points made in an earlier letter (see September 27, 2007), even citing the same legal cases that Wyden challenged as not directly relevant to the Justice Department’s arguments. Benczkowski reiterates that the definitions of “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” are flexible, in the department’s view, and can change drastically depending on the identity of the detainee and the circumstances surrounding his interrogation. The standards of compliance are also mitigated by the “nature and importance of the government interest,” he claims, giving as an example the possibility of abrogating a detainee’s fundamental rights under the Geneva Conventions and other statutes in order to force information about an impending terrorist attack from him. Benczkowski reiterates that the Eighth Amendment only applies to prisoners after they have been convicted of a crime; hence, detainees never tried or charged for crimes have no rights under that amendment. It is apparent that Benczkowski considers the discussion closed; he concludes his letter with the statement, “Please do not hesitate to contact the Department if we can be of assistance in other matters.” [US Department of Justice, 3/6/2008 ]
In recent letters to Congress, the Justice Department has suggested that the Geneva Conventions’ ban on “outrages against personal dignity” does not automatically apply to terrorism suspects in the custody of US intelligence agencies (see August 8, 2007 and March 6, 2008). The letters are just now being made public, with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) making them available to the Washington Post. Last year, Wyden asked the Justice Department to provide an explanation for President Bush’s 2007 executive order authorizing the CIA to continue using so-called “harsh interrogation techniques” on detainees (see July 20, 2007) even as Bush claimed US interrogators would always observe Geneva restrictions. The department responded with several letters that reasserted the Bush administration’s contentions that it is not bound by domestic law or international treaties in deciding how the Geneva Conventions apply to the interrogation of terror suspects. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; Voice of America, 4/27/2008]
'Humane Treatment' Subject to Interpretation, Circumstances - The Justice Department acknowledges that the US is bound by Common Article 3 of the Conventions, which requires that a signatory nation treat its detainees humanely; however, the letters say that the definition of “humane treatment” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and can depend on the detainee’s identity and the importance of the information he possesses. In a letter written to a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the principal deputy assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski, wrote, “Some prohibitions… such as the prohibition on ‘outrages against personal dignity,’ do invite the consideration of the circumstances surrounding the action.” The government can weigh “the identity and information possessed by a detainee” in deciding whether to use harsh and potentially inhumane techniques, according to Benczkowski. A suspect with information about a future attack, for example, could and possibly would be subjected to extreme treatment, he says, and notes that a violation of the Geneva Conventions would only occur if the interrogator’s conduct “shocks the conscience” because it is out of proportion to “the government interest involved.” He continued, “The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act.” Furthermore, any action defined as an “outrage upon personal dignity” must be deliberate and involve an “intent to humiliate and degrade.”
Government Arguments 'Appalling,' Says Senator - A spokeswoman for Wyden, Jennifer Hoelzer, says that the administration’s contention that the Geneva Conventions can be selectively applied is “stunning.” Hoelzer says: “The Geneva Convention in most cases is the only shield that Americans have when they are captured overseas. And for the president to say that it is acceptable to interpret Geneva on a sliding scale means that he thinks that it is acceptable for other countries to do the same. Senator Wyden—and I believe any other reasonable individual—finds that argument appalling.” Law professor Scott Silliman, who teaches national security law at Duke University, agrees with Wyden’s assessments. He notes, “What they are saying is that if my intent is to defend the United States rather than to humiliate you, than I have not committed an offense.” An anonymous Justice Department official disagrees. “I certainly don’t want to suggest that if there’s a good purpose you can head off and humiliate and degrade someone. The fact that you are doing something for a legitimate security purpose would be relevant, but there are things that a reasonable observer would deem to be outrageous.” However, he adds, “there are certainly things that can be insulting that would not raise to the level of an outrage on personal dignity.” Wyden states that if the US is subjective in deciding what is and isn’t compliant under Geneva, then other countries will do the same to US prisoners in their custody. “The cumulative effect in my interpretation is to put American troops at risk,” he says. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008] He adds that the letters help make the case for a law that explicitly puts the CIA interrogations under the same restrictions as the military, or another set of clear standards. [Wall Street Journal, 4/27/2008]
'Full Compliance' - The CIA refuses to comment on Benczkowski’s memo, but spokesman Mark Mansfield says the CIA’s detainee program “has been and continues to be in full compliance with the laws of our country.” He adds, “The program has disrupted terrorist plots and has saved lives.” [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008]
Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Mark Mansfield, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, Ron Wyden, Senate Intelligence Committee, Jennifer Hoelzer
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties
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